Toronto to Yellowknife, one year ago
Exactly one year ago today, I completed my cross-country road trip and arrived in Yellowknife NT. Seven days before that, with my car trunk packed to the brim, armed with my trusty GPS and my CAA travel planner (which I trusted more), I had placed Toronto in my rear-view mirror. I headed to Barrie to spend a last night with family members, which also gave me a head-start, as it avoided having to begin my trip in Toronto traffic. Not that having an hour’s head-start mattered much in the larger scheme of things, given that I would be driving for days. I’ve always known that this is a big country, but I never wrapped my head around how immense it is until I decided to drive across it. Simply to get out of Ontario would take me 2+ days, more time than I’d ever spent in a car before. For 7 days, I would drive past or through numerous towns and settlements, some names known to me, many not.
I said my goodbyes and headed north around 9 o’clock in the morning. For the first night I stopped in Sault Ste. Marie and stayed at a hotel right on the St. Mary’s River. Walking on the boardwalk along the riverside, I could look across the river and see the U.S. side, and the International Bridge connecting the two countries.
The next day, I stopped for gas at Pancake Bay. It wasn’t really a gas station, just a couple of pumps, with some touristy-looking stores nearby, selling furs, trinkets and food. The attendant looked out of place to me; his upright bearing struck me as not that of someone who fit with pumping gas for a living. He noticed the maps on the front seat and asked me where I was headed. When I revealed that I was going to Yellowknife ultimately, he told me that he had also driven there the year before, for a job with the RCMP. But he hadn’t liked it at all, so he had returned.
In his words, he couldn’t get out of Yellowknife fast enough, and he had spent 3 weeks in the city, only because for 2 of them he was too sick to leave. When I asked what he hadn’t liked about it, his response was: “There’s nothin’ up there!”. I hadn’t observed much of a settlement where we were standing, and somehow Pancake Bay didn’t strike me as a happening kind of place. So his was a rather interesting perspective, especially considering that he was pumping gas at a place on the side of the road that didn’t even qualify as a real gas station, with old-fashioned pumps that couldn’t accept credit cards, so customers had to go into the trinket store to pay for gas. But to each his own.
Later that day, some time after I had passed the town of White River, I stopped for a bathroom break. It wasn’t in a town per se, just another of those setups at the side of the road: a couple of gas pumps beside a diner, with a few trucks parked nearby. I went into the diner with the intention of buying some gum, to avoid any flak about the bathroom being only for customers. It was like a scene from an old Western, when a strange gun-slinger comes to town and goes to the saloon: everybody looked up when I entered. All of the faces were male, with the exception of the female cashier at the entrance, where there was also gum. They all stared and my instinct was to turn around and leave, but I didn’t know how much farther I’d have to drive to the next bathroom. I noticed the sign for the women’s bathroom straight ahead, and an exit sign over a door next to it. I felt eyes following me as I walked towards it, and I decided that when I got out of the bathroom, if I found everybody waiting for me with pitchforks, I could scoot out the exit. Aside from the staring, it was an uneventful stop, a relief in more ways than one.
Thunder Bay was my next nightly stop. It was still light when I arrived, so I drove up to see the larger-than-life Terry Fox memorial. I wondered why it had been placed on a hill outside of the city, until I got there and saw the beautiful view from the top of that hill.
The next morning, Day 3, I continued along, passing through the town of Sunshine, which was so foggy that I could barely read the sign. No thunder in Thunder Bay, no sunshine in Sunshine…the official namer of places must be sleeping on the job. The terrain was still hilly and the road curved more tightly than on the previous day’s drive. There were some interesting signs and markers: the point from which all rivers flow northward, the 90 degrees longitude marker, indicating that I was crossing into Central Time Zone, and the ‘Welcome to Manitoba’ sign, finally! It was a welcome sight indeed, as after 2 days plus some hours into a third day, Ontario was beginning to feel like Hotel California. I bypassed Winnipeg and stopped at the hotel in Brandon. By then it was dark and I was grateful to find a good restaurant behind the hotel, as I couldn’t get to bed fast enough.
Day 4 was by far my longest drive: from Brandon to Calgary. But driving in the Prairies was leaps and bounds better than driving in hilly northern Ontario. It was exactly as I remembered from Geography class: remarkably flat. The scenery was also fairly unchanging, so much so that I didn’t even realize when I had crossed into Saskatchewan. It wasn’t completely flat, however, as I did see some small hills. I also passed more bales of hay than I could count, and some ponds of water with a white mist hovering over them, while cattle grazed nearby, completely unbothered by it. It was a hot day so it couldn’t have been fog, so perhaps the terrain contains bogs of some type. On that day I gained new respect for truckers, because I discovered that driving cross-country for hours on end is hard work. When I got out of the car to stretch my legs at the ‘Welcome to Alberta’ sign it was quite hot. I drove by the Saamis teepee in Medicine Hat, supposedly the world’s largest teepee. Since I was heading west and changing time zones, by the time I arrived at the hotel in Calgary, I had lost track of how long I’d been in the car. But it was still light and I was ecstatic that I’d arrived in time to have dinner with two good friends, which was an excellent way to end a long day.
For Day 5, the plan was to get to Grande Prairie, with a stop in Banff National Park. Even under overcast skies, Lake Louise was astounding. Aside from the stunning beauty and peacefulness of the lake, with the misty snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the background, I was astonished to see water so blue. The distance to be covered was less than the previous day, but driving through the mountainous terrain, along single-lane roads much of the time, took a while. The Rockies are truly majestic mountains, the scenery dazzlingly gorgeous. Each time you round the top of another hill, the view makes you suck in your breath. I got out at one of the lookout points, and in contrast to the previous day, when I had entered the province in short sleeves, I had to put on a jacket, because snow was spitting down.
The day was going by fast and in the interest of time, I didn’t stop in Jasper. The sun was starting to go down as I got to Grande Cache and I had been the only vehicle on the road most of the time. Despite the fact that my car had always been reliable, I found myself praying not to have engine trouble or a flat tyre. Aside from the major inconvenience of having to empty the brimming trunk to get to the spare tyre, I had long ceased to have cell phone service and there was nothing but wilderness on both sides of the road.
It made me recall a conversation from my July visit to Yellowknife, with the tour guide I had met on my first visit. I had asked him about the driving conditions in the Northwest Territories, and he said the gravel roads had been paved for the most part, but cautioned me not to drive at night, due to the danger of buffalo on the road. I also asked if there were many gas stations or places to get help along the way, and the answer didn’t give me much comfort. I had been told that cell phone coverage was practically non-existent and that people sometimes rented satellite phones, so I questioned whether he thought it was a good idea. His response was to laugh so hard that he nearly fell off his chair. When he was eventually able to speak, his only words were: “You’re in the middle of nowhere. Who ya gonna call?”. That was the only time when I had doubts about whether to drive or ship the car, but they lasted about 30 seconds and I ended up laughing as well. I knew that it wasn’t every day that I’d have the opportunity to drive across the country, so I decided to take my chances.
Between Grande Cache and Grande Prairie, as I was driving on a long stretch of road, no other vehicle in sight, I passed a herd of deer, standing about 20 metres from the road. They looked at me as if they were wondering what I was doing there. Shortly afterward, a black bear crossed the road in the distance and sat on the grass just before the treeline. I slowed down and it sat there watching as I approached. But as I pulled to a stop to take a picture, it ran into the bush and all I captured was its hind-quarters. Poor creature; what it didn’t know was that I was more afraid than it was. I arrived in the night in Grande Prairie, which was much bigger a town than I expected. I later learned that Yellowknifers drive down to go shopping there, as well as to Edmonton.
The next day’s drive to High Level was somewhat amusing. My GPS gave me confusing instructions on two different occasions, and I needed to verify that I had taken the right road. So I stopped at gas stations to ask directions. Each time, nobody knew any more than I did. The first time I was still in Grande Prairie, so I could understand somewhat, as there were many roads. The second time I was in a very small town, so being met with blank stares again was both amusing and exasperating. I was tempted to say: “Come on people! There is only one road in this town. What do you mean you don’t know which side of the fork goes toward High Level?” Despite all that, I managed to make it to High Level in the afternoon, and to have some time to relax. I went to bed gleeful in the knowledge that the next day I could stop living in my car.
At 7:30am on Day 7, I left High Level with headlights on, as it was still dark. My GPS had completely whacked out by then, because it said the 8 hour trip would take 17 hours. This is why I don’t rely on a GPS, outside of built-up areas. Just after the sun had risen, another black bear crossed the road in front of me. I hope they’re better omens than black cats. It ignored me and went foraging, and I managed to snap a recognizable, but fuzzy, picture. Anticipation of arriving at my destination began to grow when I finally entered the Northwest Territories, and saw the huge marker for the 60th parallel. Not long after my last stop at yet another gas pump on the side of the road, in Enterprise, I arrived at the ferry crossing on the Mackenzie River. There was no vehicle ahead of me, as the ferry had just left. As I waited, I watched work taking place on the Deh Cho bridge. That ferry has connected Yellowknife by surface to the rest of civilization for years – replaced by an ice bridge in winter. But one day soon, we will be able to drive across the mighty Mackenzie in all seasons.
My car was the first one off the ferry on the Fort Providence side. As I drove off, there they were, as if on cue: 2 gigantic buffalos, grazing on the side of the road. I had only seen them on television before, and they were even bigger than I imagined. I later learned that these were Wood Bison, which are larger than Plains Bison, and they can weigh up to 2,00lbs. I wanted to get a good look, so I had to pull aside, but I didn’t want to get too close, as I was sure they could have overturned my car very easily. We stared at each other, my foot on the gas, just in case. The Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary is in the area, so as I drove along Highway 3, I encountered several groups of buffalos grazing, or lazing in the shade.
I also came across a massive lone male moseying along the side of the road, going in the opposite direction. He looked rather sad and lonely. He turned his head slowly and gave me a doleful look. It was the quintessential Sesame Street moment, the type when somebody would have said: “B is for Buffalo”. I was grateful that I didn’t have to endure any buffalo traffic jams, where they lie across the road, because there’s nothing you can do but wait for them to get up and move, which they do at their leisure.
After a bumpy stretch of road that seemed to go on for miles, I was elated to see the Yellowknife airport. Then I passed my favourite sign: ‘Welcome to Yellowknife’. I was finally here, in my new home town. It was well worth the trip.
© Kathryn Birchwood and FrozenTrini 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner are strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kathryn Birchwood and FrozenTrini, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.